Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - December 6, 2019

Nuts about crèches

I received my first nativity when I was about 6. But I had no idea what a real nativity fanatic was like until I met Judy Klein at a college media conference. We became friends and every meeting after that, we shopped for unique nativities. My second Snapshots column was about my collection. At that time, she had around 1,700. While I now have around 25-30 from around the world, she has 3,600, all carefully photographed and catalogued! She displays them in a special shed her husband built for her. Every year, she shares her collection during her "Bethlehem in Denton County (Texas)" tour.

Friends of the Crèche (FOTC) is a national organization and affiliated with a like-minded international one. When Judy, who is on the FOTC board, told me this year's convention would be in Santa Fe in early November, I immediately signed up. Since our youngest daughter and son-in-law live in New Mexico, it was also a good chance to see them as well.

The first event was a reception at the Museum of International Folk Art, where we viewed nativities from around the world donated by Alexander Girard, an architect and industrial and interior designer. He and his wife gave more than 100,000 pieces to the museum in 1978. Some were quite simple, while others had intricate figures in a dazzling array of colors. Among my favorites were an 18th century New Mexico nativity of wood and a large gathering of ceramic figures made by Mexican artist Teodora Blanco in about 1965.

Later that evening, Judy gave me and her Texas friend Rhelda Holy-Family ornaments she had fashioned from peanut shells. Judy joked that even out of a large bag of peanuts, it was difficult to find shells that were just the right shape to portray Mary, Joseph and Baby Jesus.

In the hotel ballroom, nativities were lined up for a silent auction. FOTC members donated pieces they had purchased or made to raise money for the organization. There were crèches made of wood, cloth, porcelain, resin, bread dough, banana leaves and more. They came from Africa, Latin America, Europe, Southeast Asia and the U.S. Judy donated one she had made using a Scrabble board with tiles spelling "Bethlehem," "Shepherds," "Christ Child," and other words related to the Christmas story.

Many convention attendees wore vests, sweaters, ties and scarves with nativities stitched or painted on them. They also wore nativity pins, earrings, pendants, bracelets and rings.

Artists from the area were set up in a "market" to sell crèches made of ceramic, tin, elk horns, driftwood, glass and other materials. And on Sunday afternoon, several demonstrated their craft, including Charlie Carrillo painting on wood, Nicolas Madrid punching tin ornaments and Eluid Levi Martínez carving wood figures.

Carrillo has a doctorate in anthropology/archaeology. Madrid's work can be found in museums and private collections. Martinez, an engineer, is a ninth-generation carver of northern New Mexico santos - images of saints indigenous to the state. His work has been featured in many museums, including the Smithsonian.

Carrillo, whose works are also in the Smithsonian, began researching the techniques, materials and subject matter of the early carvers of saints in New Mexico. He said the portrayal of saints for religious purposes dates to the 18th century in Hispanic New Mexican communities.

Susan Topp Weber has a degree in anthropology, has written books about nativities and operates a Christmas shop in Santa Fe. She spoke about the blend of the native Pueblo cultures with Catholicism. She said crèches in the Southwest weren't prevalent until the late 19th century, when tourists began visiting the area.

I was fascinated by the variety of ways the Christmas nativity was depicted in clothing, jewelry, ornaments and table-top displays.

But Judy's peanut creations really caught my eye. So when I looked at the FOTC website - friendsofthecreche.org - a few days ago, I was immediately drawn to Judy's blog, "The Peanut Nativity":

For the recent FOTC conference in Santa Fe, I had designed a nativity ornament using peanuts for the Holy Family, glued to a wood disc. I made these as little gifts ... After all had been distributed, John (one of our new members and a FOTC conference first-timer) found me because he wanted to know if/how he could possibly obtain one. When I sadly told him I had no more, he begged me to make another and mail it to him ...

This is the letter I just sent to him:

Dear John, I haven't forgotten your request ... I had used up all my peanut makings & was not planning to make any more, but your pitiful begging got to me ??... other ideas for taking it further kept coming, so I bought more makings & another bag of peanuts. (The story of my life!!)

... I found the delightfully shaped peanuts that were perfect for the wisemen (that I was NOT looking for, by the way, yet... there they were & not to be ignored!) ... then there were the smaller shepherds with their sheep!! ... I saw the ribbon that was perfect to suggest the magnificence of their wardrobe, and after another couple of tedious hours of getting everyone appropriately dressed, and figuring how to make sheep-shaped single peanuts - can you say that fast 3 times?) ... And that was when it hit me....the scene was naked!! There was no landscaping to hold it all together! Another hour or so later I could finally step back, take a long look at it and deem it complete (well, except for a star ...)

Since then, in my new bag of peanuts, I have found three more wisemen! ...

There is little doubt that all of us at the conference are into crèches. But after reading Judy's blog, I have been wondering if I should get her a pillow like husband Art received from his cousin. It says, "My family tree is full of nuts" ... peanuts, that is!

Clockwise from upper-left: Rhelda, left, and Judy with two of Judy's peanut ornaments; Charlie Carrillo working on one of his paintings; a crèche at the Museum of International Folk Art; the crèche made from peanuts Judy made in response to John's request; Martínez studies one of his earlier carvings while working on another in his hands.

Comments? [email protected].
Other columns from 2019 may be found at: 2019 Index.
Links to previous years are on the home page: Home